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Of cows and coaches

One of the earliest kid tales we knew had to do with a cow named Nanthawisal, who would do his chores only when he was asked nicely. Now, we have seen a real-life drama unfolding before our eyes, featuring a Korean taekwondo coach who physically "punished" a "wayward" Thai trainee, was on the verge of quitting and has returned to a hero's welcome. It can be a bit confusing if we let generalisation get the better of us.

There are bad trainees and there are abusive teachers. There are good trainees with great potential who can have their confidence and self-esteem destroyed by what they regard as over-the-top punishment. There are great and sincere coaches who are deemed disciplinarians because they believe with all their heart that their methods can lay down the best foundations for their students. Last, but not least, there are things called traditions and cultures.

American athletes, the world's dominant force in sports, certainly are not familiar with getting routinely smacked in the heads by their coaches. East Asian athletes, meanwhile, are literally hit on a regular basis by their trainers before spectators and even their parents. Is America better than South Korea in sports overall? Yes. Is South Korea better than Thailand in sport rankings? Yes. Is South Korea's taekwondo better than America's? Yes, again.

One of the greatest football coaches, Sir Alex Ferguson, is reputed for his hot temper, and a wild swing of his foot once sent something flying that injured football star David Beckham near his eyebrow. Yet Ferguson's success is undisputed, though there are stories of other football teams imploding because of coaches' uncompromising man-management philosophies.

Some athletes - the Nanthawisal type - bloom because of encouragement or sweet inspiration. Others, seemingly, need to be slapped on their way to stardom - South Korean style. As we can see, there are more factors lying underneath the issue of coach Choi Young-seok and his students than meet the eyes. People dispensing harsh comments one way or the other do not know them personally or witnessed the circumstances of the infamous incident. We can only make comments based on our stands against or for strict discipline in coaching that may involve harsh physical punishment.

It boils down to how one "can" motivate or be motivated, really. We are not supposed to use the word "should", because it would allow generalisation to sneak in. If Nong Koi is a really good athlete with excellent potential, who happens to be traumatised by the Korean coach's action, then she needs a new way of coaching. If he is a really good coach trying his best not to spoil athletes by pampering them, then it's another case altogether.

As importantly, everyone must calm down. We don't kick people with precision for a living, so who are we to judge the coach and his student? Nong Koi has turned from a "victim" into a cry-baby who smeared a good trainer's image and all of a sudden her future is hanging in the balance. Choi has become a befuddled TV star after being bombarded with criticism and then showered with praise and apologies to the point of being nearly spoiled himself.

Maybe the stories of the cow and the coach are not that contradictory. Everybody wants to be treated like the Nanthawisal cow in training but may invoke Choi's methods when training others. And, as a sports commentator puts it, being an abusive coach is one thing, being a Korean trainer culturally familiar with harsh punishment of students is another.

Of course, few people know the full story, so here's hoping it's a case of a mismatch, a cultural misunderstanding between a good athlete and a good coach.

There has been too much black and white in this case already. Like someone has said, it's impossible to find heroes and villains in every single real-life tale. Certain stories simply have ordinary people in them, acting out their own beliefs, methods and thinking.

The Nanthawisal tale does sound different when we grow older, though. Does it in fact teach us to be insincere and manipulative, in addition to telling us to be nice to people? And such scepticism helps us look at the coach story with an added perspective. Despite the storm of controversies he kicked up, he called his action a gesture that he truly cared about those he trained. Do you like to be the cow or his student?

Perhaps both stories are valuable in their own ambiguous ways. Either the cow was lazy, or the owner was abusive and manipulative. Either the coach was sincere and the student was lacking discipline, or he overreacted - culturally or otherwise - to an innocent lapse by his student. However, if we are to learn anything from both stories, it's that people are different and we should not jump to any conclusion too early.


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